Beyonce’s release of “Lemonade” has inspired a myriad of different responses, commentaries, and critiques, I want to discuss three of those responses here. Lasha’s piece in Salon that critiqued bell hooks’s critique, hooks’s critique posted to her website, the third was another critique of hooks’s critique offered up by Tamara Winfrey Harris at BitchMedia.org. After reading all of them, I began to wonder if these three pieces could be conceptualized as a dialectic with hooks offering the thesis, Lasha the anti-thesis, and Harris the synthesis. As it regards the function of criticism, I think that the examination of these three inter-related pieces provides a useful intersection through which to discuss the role of criticism and how it operates as a method and in a dialogue.
To be sure, I am not writing here to provide my approval of one critique over another (they all offer important insights), nor offer my own review or criticism of Lemonade. My voice regarding the focus of these critiques (i.e. Beyonce, black feminism, representation, and commodification) is somewhat neutralized by my subject position (white male). Rather, my inspiration for writing was born initially from what I perceive as a counter-productive conflation of affective commentary and mis-executed criticism of hooks’s critique on the part of Lasha, as compared with Harris’s commentary and critique which was able to better assess hooks’s critique from broader assessment of current instantiations of feminist representations.
Lasha’s main issue with hooks’s critique is that it neglects how the content might meaningfully connect with the listener, and that it suffers from a sort of quarantined elitist immunity. She writes:
Black women are enthralled, moved to tears, and motivated to unpack baggage and trauma, dead set on seeking support within the sisterhood because of ‘Lemonade.’ It is contrary to any stretch of feminist ideology to then issue us an edict that we have been duped, reducing our connection, a legitimate feeling of transcendent sisterhood and reclamation of our own selves substantiated by shared lived experiences, to our inability to recognize and reject imperialist propaganda.
Lasha definitely makes a solid point. Perhaps, hooks’s critique undermines the affective impact Lemonade, and the potential that affective impact has in nurturing a solidarity for black women. Indeed, Lasha recognizes a valuable and influential role that has long inhered in the power of art. Although, the critique then turns and attempts to implicate hooks within her own criticism. When hooks recognizes the representations of varied and diverse black female bodies displayed in Lemonade and writes that “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color,” Lasha attempts to accuse hooks’s of hypocrisy in that she, like Beyonce, profits off her own mode of representation.
Fundamentally, any body in capitalistic service has been commodified. Yes, Beyoncé sells ample hips and enticing cleavage. Yes, she sells an hour-glass figure and a beautiful face. But does not Dr. hooks sell the image of her body, too? Is she, with folded legs sitting at a computer typing her thoughts from arched fingers, not commodifying her body? Is her choice not to show as much leg or to cover her bosom not because she has commodified the idea that women should be modest in their presentation of their bodies?
This point, while provocative, is undermined by its lack of faith in the reader to recognize the obvious distinction in these representations and how they both function, and how they are intended to function. Is Lasha seriously suggesting that hooks commodifies herself in the same way (i.e. using her body and voice) and to the same end that Beyonce is? Further, Lasha uses the ubiquity of neoliberal capitalism to neutralize one mode of critique (hooks) while still attempting to validate her own. To dismiss a critique that recognizes the systemic functions of patriarchal oppression so that one can then consume particular representations with a “principled” pleasure illustrates the very thing hooks is so persistent in pointing out. I feel as though Lasha’s piece reads more like a very thoughtful review of Lemonade, that for some reason also takes hooks to task. Although, hooks is not arguing against subjective enjoyment. Because, like both hooks and Lasha imply, all art and representation is commodity. Rather than using this fact to criticize a critique (a criticism based on what is seemingly motivated in part by fandom), why not recognize the how neoliberal capitalism appropriates and mobilizes all expressions and representations in the service of the market? As such, it should be recognized art operates on various levels that can maintain simultaneous meanings.
Ultimately, if Lasha wants to recognize the affective power of Lemonade, it doesn’t mean that hooks’s criticism isn’t useful in reminding us of how it operates within the larger context still infused with patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. Both are important and are not mutually exclusive. As consumers of media content and fans of art, when we earnestly engage in the latter, we are implicated in the former. hooks does not have the ability, nor does she intend, to take the affective meaning away from us. She just reminds us to remain diligent and not be easily taken by “empowering images” which, not only fail to meaningfully challenge power structures, but often redirects anger and reinforces those structures against which artists like Beyonce are, I do believe, attempting to disrupt.
In reading Harris’s write up in BitchMedia, we see a much more productive criticism of hooks’s critique, one that emphasizes hooks’s perceived elitism, and how it can work against the translation of a feminist message. While hooks might remain undiscovered, Beyonce (despite operating within and through a culture industry that surely deserves persistent criticism) has the power to play an important role. One can certainly be introduced to feminism, and the need for feminism, through the lived experience itself. My first introduction came when my mother (who never went to college or read feminist literature) rolled her eyes when a newly married couple were announced as “Mr. and Mrs. Ethan Jones.” For my mother, this was an erasure. It’s something I have never forgotten. Although by so many other standards, my mother plays right into the patriarchal framework. Point being – ground level access is just as important, if not more important, than the nurturing of a feminist scholar. Harris quotes Michelle Wallace:
One of the interesting things about young black feminist intellectuals and academics is how into pop culture they are and how much more populist they are… I think it’s annoying to some people of my generation because they feel like well, you know, ‘You haven’t really earned the right to make statements,’ but I think, ‘Open the door and let them in.’
Where Lasha positions her appreciation of Lemonade in opposition to hooks, Harris is able critically and productively assess hooks’s position by pointing out where it misses a very important aspect of Beyonce’s potential as it relates to feminism. Does the inclusion of a brightly lit “FEMINIST” as a backdrop during her performance at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards perhaps represent the height of post-modern neoliberal kenosis? It can surely be argued that in such a context, the term is devoid of force and employed a media blitzkrieg reinforcing the very spectacle that necessitates it. Although, at the same time, it is perhaps the first time an 11 year old black girl sees the term and is immediately curious. hooks doesn’t allow for an easy entry point, but Beyonce certainly does, and that is important. Harris reminds us that Beyonce isn’t the end result of a static strategic white supremacist patriarchy, but the beginning of an awareness for young people who then go on to invest themselves in a fluid struggle by whatever means are effective whether it be scholarship, activism, art, education, etc.. Similar to Lasha, Harris calls out hooks for neglecting to consider the lived experience:
She ignores Beyoncé’s humanity and the complicated nature of practicing feminism in the real world, expecting it to follow the clean lines of academic feminism—defiantly anti-capitalist and rejecting all mainstream notions of beauty and sex. But Lemonade is not a textbook—it is the product of a black woman’s lived experience.
But then, acknowledges the variations of feminism that operate in different contexts. She concludes:
Perhaps in bell hooks’s eyes none of this is feminism, but these things and works like Lemonade represent the very real, valid, and important ways that women fight patriarchy. By dismissing them, through her critiques of pop culture feminism, hooks consigns feminism to elitist ivory tower theory and makes the perfect the enemy of the good.
Here Harris allows for hooks’s brand of feminism, but points out where it limits itself. Thus, in a way it validates both. Admittedly, perhaps these distinctions I’m pointing out between Lasha and Harris exists only in rhetoric, but if grad school taught me anything, it is that rhetoric is extremely consequential in how things are interpreted. Lasha seems to make a claim and end it with a period, whereas Harris makes a claim and ends it with en ellipsis effectively inviting more discussion. This is illustrated in the titles of both pieces. Lasha redirects the larger struggle towards an unnecessary, if not counter productive, exchange between herself hooks. Harris addresses the larger struggle and discusses the roles of both Beyonce and hooks
So, yes..maybe it is a stretch to conceptualize these critiques as a Hegelian dialectic. Although, as sites like BitchMedia, Salon, Slate, etc. continue to offer up thoughtful critical pieces that blur the lines of academia and pop criticism, I think this conceptualization helps illustrate how role of critique needs to be understood as a method of discourse, not pettiness or expressions of elevated informed tastes. hooks did not get anything wrong in her assessment of Lemonade, she merely employed a type criticism that readers of hooks have come to expect and engage with. I feel as though Lasha’s framing could have been much stronger if she didn’t locate herself in opposition to hooks, that is, as the anti-thesis to hooks’s thesis. Harris, on the other hand was able to use hooks’s critique, to absorb it into the service of a larger struggle that can benefit from diverse participants, i.e. she provides a synthesis that leads the conversation forward.